Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Sergio De La Pava, Personae: A Novel (2011)

I don’t know why I feel the need to add that “A Novel” to the title.  Sure, it says that on the cover, but it’s also A Naked Singularity: A Novel, and I didn’t feel so moved there.  I guess it’s just because a one-word title looks kind of lonely.  Same with Cosmos, below.

So, it’s De La Pava’s second novel, and it is quite different from the first.  For one thing, it’s a lot shorter; it’s two hundred seventy pages but actually shorter than that, since more than half of it is taken up by a two-act play.  (What other novels have long plays or play-like structures shoved into them?  Ulysses, obviously.  Giles Goat-Boy.  Any other famous ones?).  For another thing, there’s no plot to speak of.

Soooo…how to summarize?  There’s a brilliant and eccentric detective (who frankly veers rather too close to being the TV stereotype of same; there were places when I thought this was being parodied, but I fear it’s actually just the thing itself) who comes in to investigate the death of a mysterious centenarian man, dead in his apartment of what appear for all the world to be natural causes.  It turns out that this man—a Columbian immigrant (like De La Pava’s parents)—was something of a writer, and the bulk of the novel consists of his ephemera: some fragmentary ramblings, a very short story, the aforementioned play, and a longer short story.

I really went back and forth on this book.  The aforementioned play is about five people in a room wondering what’s going on: a li’l No Exit, a li’l Exterminating Angel, and a whole lot Beckett.  It, like the novel as a whole, is pretty willfully obscure, and while it’s not wholly un-enjoyable, one gets the distinct impression that there is more heat than light here.  However, the final section—a story in three interleaved parts about a man in three stages of his life: with his wife and children in Columbia; as an avenging angel trying to rescue them from murderous rebels; and as an older man in New York—is compelling, and deals fairly well with some weighty themes.  As one point, half-dead, he has an extended conservation with Satan, and while it’s not exactly Dostoevsky, it’s not half bad, either.

How does it all cohere?  Does it add up to anything whatsoever?  Dunno, but I have to admit, it lingers, more than I thought it would.  The prose also seems at least a bit more polished than it was in A Naked Singularity, though there are several bits that use the wrong “there,” which seems quite unjustifiable.  Personae may be far from perfect, but it’s bloody interesting, and I hope De La Pava writes more novels.


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